Sunday, July 13, 2014

Radical Ideas?

I'm realizing that some of you must think I am crazy. In an earlier post, I made some radical suggestions. Do away with Children's Liturgy of the Word? Abolish nurseries and cry rooms? Get rid of the convenience of Sunday morning religious education classes?  I think it's important you see how these issues have been addressed on Catholic blogs and in Catholic publications in recent years. Every post I've read validates what I have experienced as an aunt and stepmom or heard from dozens, if not hundreds, of parents I have worked with over the years.

As you see how many others agree with me about the concerns on these programs, I hope you can come to appreciate my vision for parish reform. None of these changes need to take place overnight. In fact, they should be part of a 3, 5 or 10 year vision (depending how much reform you feel is necessary in your parish) to change the minds and hearts of parents while offering them tools and practical alternatives. I also think you see it's important to truly evaluate if these programs and ideas are more for parental convenience or are truly in the best spiritual interests of the children in your parish.

In this post  I'll address each of these topics as well as link to other Catholic authors and bloggers who have addressed these topics.I don't agree 100% with each link I post, but it will offer a varied perspective. I will also  provide practical alternatives so if/when your parish decides a change is needed, they have some practical ideas to build their plan. Brace yourself- I'm going to provide tons of links in this post. If you agree with me, great. If you are skeptical, the links are there so you can read/see what others are saying.

Last year, the Catholic blogosphere blew up with comments after Deacon Greg addressed the sensitive topic of dhildren crying during Mass. I followed his page and several others in the coming days as they wrote about this frustrating topic. No one likes a screaming child during Mass, but we need to know, accept, and appreciate that babies cry. Loudly. Suddenly. For no reason at all. Parents need to be able to discern when their child needs a 5 minute time out in the back of church or when a pacifier, bottle, or cuddle will bring a swift end to the disruption. Children belong in Mass. I believe children should be brought to Mass weekly and that much can be done to make Mass a calm, relaxing, loving, and positive experience for all.

Cry rooms do have their place, but in many parishes, they have become glorified toy rooms. Parents sit while their children play, often loudly, with toys bearing no religious significance. No one can hear Mass over the noise and parents get little to nothing out of Mass except the relief of not being glared at when their child makes childlike noises or engages in childlike behavior during Mass. A cry room should be a place where parents can take that loud or unruly infant/toddler (or special needs individual) to get the tantrum out before returning to Mass. Cry rooms should have some comfy chairs for mothers who don't wish to nurse in the sanctuary (though this doesn't bother me... or Pope Francis!). There should be hymnals and missalettes to encourage ongoing participation in the liturgy. Soft lighting will provide a soothing environment. If there are any other items, they should be geared towards prayer, not play. A good selection of children's missals and maybe some large rosaries or dolls of saints should be about it. Make it a holy, sacred place as well... a continuation of the sanctuary. Most of all, let's remember that some crying/noise in church is necessary and a beautiful sign of life in abundance!

Children should be welcome everywhere in church. Not just in Mass, but adoration as well. Read the heartbreaking story of a mother who was discouraged from bringing her children to adoration. We need more little ones in adoration, not fewer! At one parish I worked, they not only offered perpetual adoration but, also, a Family Hour once/month where cries, giggling, wiggling, and noise are celebrated, all in Christ's presence. Praise God! Family Hours should not take the place of kids going to adoration with parents, but it's a great way to introduce adoration unless/until your children are ready for more quiet prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. The little girl in the story above is definitely ready for as much time as she can get with our Lord.

I used to volunteer in the church nursery when I was a young girl. Children were running around, screaming, yelling... nothing holy or sacred took place there. The problem I see with nurseries is that it implies to children that Mass is boring and/or not for them. Once they hit the age of 3, 4, or 5 we expect them to start sitting through Mass and behaving? Probably won't happen without lots of fights, stress, and tears. If they've been eased into it from infancy, it is likely to go much smoother.

But getting kids to sit through Mass is hard, especially if parents have a large family with several infants/toddlers. The answer is simple, in my opinion. Get a team of willing individuals (widows and widowers, teens needing service hours, couples waiting to become parents, etc.) to serve as family helpers. You can either have a system where parents and volunteers can sign up to be paired at specified Mass time or have these volunteers with designated badges in the back of church available on a first-come, first-served basis. How often are your kids better behaved for strangers than for you? An extra adult/teen in the pew could allow you to separate fighting little ones, pass off a sleeping baby but still keep the family together for prayer and worship. I've had many friends say how easy Mass would be if they just had "one more adult with them" or "an extra set of hands". GIVE THEM THAT! This builds a sense of family and community within your parish and helps families pray together. Can I get an, 'Amen'?

Just as nurseries convince children that Mass isn't for them, Children's Liturgy of the Word (CLOW) can have the same impact on slightly older children. At age 10, I served on the altar some weeks and was dismissed during the readings on other weeks. What kind of confusing message did that deliver? Often, CLOW is well-meaning volunteers offering a watered-down version of the gospel and/or a craft or activity page designed to teach what the readings are. Rarely, in my opinion, do children receive spiritual benefits from this time. Granted, they aren't wiggling and distracting parents in the pews, but is the craft or activity page going to help them grow in their faith? I would prefer to see CLOW be done as intended, which is with a deacon or priest delivering an age-appropriate homily after proclaiming the gospel. I think children would get far greater benefits staying in the pew but being handed age-appropriate materials such as my Liturgical Reflections to provide understanding and application of the readings. I much prefer children do these reflections before Mass, but I realize some parents like giving the kids something to do in the pews. I think it's a better alternative than dismissing them to make a sheep puppet or draw Zacchaeus in a tree. Other Catholic bloggers tend to agree with me here so I know my ideas aren't too far-fetched.

Lastly, let's address Sunday Religious Education classes. First of all, many of us know that the traditional methods of religious education need much attention, change, and revision. There are many ways to do this. Perhaps, your parish has found an ideal Mass schedule where kids get to RE without disruption of the Mass and the majority of parents follow/precede class with family Mass attendance. This is great, but I've rarely seen it in my years of experience.

What did God intend for Sabbath to be? For worship and rest. Traditional RE classes are not about worship and it's certainly far from rest. Sunday has always been a family day of worship and rest in my parents' home (where I'm temporarily living): Mass attendance followed by leisurely reading of the paper or watching TV (often in the same room), Sunday dinner with the whole family, (brother, niece, brother's fiance & sister's boyfriend come when they can), and an afternoon of napping or watching TV. It's peaceful, quiet, and relaxing. I <3 it, but I know that returning to full-time ministry will likely mean working every Sunday morning and having to attend Saturday or Sunday night Mass so as not to conflict with when I'm working. This means, DREs are rarely at Mass with the families they are serving. What a travesty, in my opinion.

In this country, we've developed an attitude that Religious Education classes should be offered at the most convenient possible times for families- when the kids don't have conflicts with school, sports, or other activities. I agree that religious education needs to be accessible and I appreciate that Sundays might be an ideal day. However,I challenge you to rethink what accessible/convenient RE looks like. There are an amazing number of different models for Religious Education including, but not limited to:

  • Text-based programs
  • Montessori-based (Catechesis of the Good Shepherd)
  • special needs religious education
  • whole family catechesis
  • homeschooling options (using text-based curricula)

I think an ideal parish will offer as many of these options as possible so busy families can choose the method that works best for them and their children, rather than the most ideal day/time. Larger parishes will ALWAYS have to have several days and times, but home school and whole family catechesis options force families to (appropriately) decide on their priorities. Do they want to have a catechist instruct their child or are they willing/able to take on that responsibility themselves? I don't think there's a right or wrong answer here since there are so many different circumstances and situations that change things. If they want a catechist to instruct their child, they will find a way to make it work and reschedule their child's other activities. I do not want to do away with parishes offering religious education, but with the complicated schedules of kids these days, I think we are having to think outside the box. I do think whole family catechesis and home school families should check in monthly (or so) with the pastor or DRE to ensure they are on track with their peers.

Sunday scheduling of RE is so tough because you have to cancel for many 3-day weekends throughout the year. It's very tough to get a reasonable number of hours of instruction in on any day other than Tuesday-Thursday. I think Tuesdays and Thursdays should provide both afternoon and evening options to give families choices (4-5:30 and 6-7:30, for instance). Those days/times can also be used for monthly check-ins or group activities with families opting to home school or use whole family catechesis.

DREs, how many of you have had parents tell you, "Billy can't come these 8 weeks because of (insert commitment here)" or ask if their child can bounce back and forth between your different days/times to accommodate their schedules? Parents, how many of you have asked your DRE to do this? If the current days/times don't work with your child's activities, are you ready to make some tough choices? I feel for parents and DREs in these situations, but we need to think outside the box. Parents, could you:

  • Ban together with other church parents to request a team  or organization move their game/practice/rehearsal times to allow time for worship and religious instruction? 
  • Ask your DRE if you can home school your children to accommodate their busy/erratic schedules?
  • Offer to teach the kids on a given team, with the guidance of your DRE, outside of the church so you can best meet their needs without placing demands on the parish?
DREs and pastors, what  other creative options do you have for these families? I'm sure there are great ideas, so let's hear them!


  1. I totally feel you there are soo many things it's sometimes hard to decide what to pick. Part of the issue is volunteers. A DRE can only do so much. My mom is the DRE at our parish and she'd LOVE to have classes at 3 different times a week but she can barely get enough teachers to offer classes once a week (and we have some grades mixed together due to lack of volunteers).

    We're all a work in progress. We're going to try a family class once a month to get the parents more involved. It's so hard for me because I see the complaints that people in my generation are "poorly catechized" but I honestly don't feel that way my parents were very involved in our faith and taught us things and we were always learning.

  2. I wasn't out to offend, Beth Anne. The catechetical materials published from 1980-1995 or so were (mostly) very watered down. If parents didn't offer decent supplements at home, there wasn't much substance to how the faith was being taught.

    On another note, offering home school and family catechesis options often drops your enrollment, meaning you don't need as many volunteers or days/times. I'm used to working in enormous parishes with RE enrollments of 300-500. With that many kids, you need to get creative and flexible with times!

    God bless your mom and all she does!!

  3. Our current parish has two different classroom options and a homeschool option. I think it's great. Hopefully more parishes will be able to move to a more flexible offering of RE soon, but it is true that we meed more good catechists, too!